Australian Open 2016: Marinko Matosevic the self-declared wildcard play-off favourite

Motivated: Marinko Matosevic. Photo: Melissa AdamsMuch like an investor facing a sea of red ink in a tumbling sharemarket, Marinko Matosevic preferred to avert his eyes when the currency that is his ranking began its spiral downwards during a dreadful year. “Once I dropped out of that first page, out of the top hundred, honestly, I stopped looking,” Matosevic says. “I refuse to look if I’m not on the first page.”

He is, still, a long way from it. Keep scrolling. A bit further. Page three. Down the bottom. There he is. Australia’s 2012 year-end No.1 and former top-40 resident, languishing at No.296. Hence Matosevic’s presence at this week’s Australian Open wildcard play-off, when, just 11 months ago, the world No.81 was playing dual grand slam champion Andy Murray in the second round at Melbourne Park.

“This is the first time I’ve been healthy since March 6,” says Matosevic, recalling his two most recent tour-level match wins – the first against John Isner – in consecutive tournaments way back in February, followed by a close contest with David Ferrer in Acapulco. “I was probably playing the best tennis of my life then. And, after that, a huge nightmare.”

It all started to unravel when he – along with several of the ATP’s physios – contracted a virus in Mexico that affected him for a month. Next was a stress fracture in his foot suffered during the transition from hardcourts to clay in Houston in May.  “I just pushed off, and felt something – I was in a moon boot for three weeks before the French Open,” he says.

“I didn’t run for three-and-a-half months, just got out of shape, put on weight due to not being able to run and play tennis. And then I started to feel all right after Wimbledon, I started to get in shape again, and then my back went, a facet joint sprain, so three big things. Just a nightmare.”

All of which leaves Matosevic wide awake to the reality that there is much ground to recover. He played through his injuries – “just basically picking up prizemoney, but it wasn’t ideal obviously” – and yet would not have done so had he been able to see what lay ahead. With hindsight, the best thing would have been to return home to Melbourne in March, after Indian Wells. Instead, he pressed on.

First round loss followed first round loss, his ranking in freefall during what he variously describes as a reality check and a huge motivation to rise again. By November, Matosevic had signed up for the qualifying rounds of a Challenger event in Traralgon, just for the match practice, but with a game so rusty that he says he felt like someone who had never played tennis before.

In fact, he is a guy who finished the three previous seasons in the top 75, a former Davis Cup representative who notes that he beat both Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis the last time he played them at tour-level, and has not lost to Sam Groth in “seven, eight years”. Should he stay healthy for the next one, he has no doubt he will be back in double-digits. “It’s just going to depend on how high I can go.”

Play-off success would be just the fillip required, for not only would it guarantee a sixth consecutive main draw appearance at the Australian Open, but it would also aid his cause for a wildcard into the Brisbane International, where he was a quarter-finalist in 2014.

Coaching-wise, he is being helped for now by long-time mentor Todd Woodbridge, while his successful, sometimes colourful, partnership with Mark Woodforde will resume on a part-time basis in 2016. US-based Woodforde can only commit to a limited travel schedule, and Matosevic will also spend time training at his on-again coach’s home in Palm Springs.

He is unconcerned by the fact he turned 30 in August, noting the five thirtysomethings in the top 10, as well as late-20s contemporaries Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal. “I can’t believe it – dirty 30!” laughs the late-bloomer, whose first top-50 season came at the age of 27. “I don’t feel like it. I definitely don’t feel like it in tennis years.”

This week, he is seeded seventh, in a situation position he did not anticipate or want, but clear about the likely result. “Well, I’m expecting to win it,” was Matosevic’s declaration before Monday’s opening play-off round against Maverick Banes. “I mean, no offence to the other players in the draw, but I would say I’m clearly the best player and obviously I’ve done the most in tennis out of everyone, and if I’m playing at a decent level I should win it.”

Australian Open wildcard play-off, December 14-20 at Melbourne Park:

Men’s singles draw

[1] James Duckworth (NSW) v Harry Bourchier (Tas)

[2] Jordan Thompson (NSW) v Matt Reid (NSW)

[3] Luke Saville (SA) v Jacob Grills (Vic)

[4] Benjamin Mitchell (Qld) v Oliver Anderson (Qld)

[5] Alex Bolt (SA) v Marc Polmans (Vic)

[6] Gavin Van Peperzeel (Qld) v Bradley Mousley (SA)

[7] Marinko Matosevic (Vic) v Maverick Banes (Qld)

[8] Matthew Barton (NSW) v Omar Jasika (Vic)

Women’s singles draw

[1] Olivia Rogowska (Vic) v Kaylah McPhee (Qld)

[2] Arina Rodionova (Vic) v Angelique Svinos (NSW)

[3] Jessica Moore (WA) v Abbie Myers (Vic)

[4] Alison Bai (ACT) v Belinda Woolcock (Vic)

[5] Kimberly Birrell (Qld) v Naiktha Bains (Qld)

[6] Storm Sanders (WA) v Sally Peers (Vic)

[7] Olivia Tjandramulia (Qld) v Destanee Aiava (Vic)

[8] Zoe Hives (Vic) v Maddison Inglis (WA) Sponsored: Australian Open tickets available from just $75 at Queen of Tickets

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